27th August 2021
Last year I wrote a pretty angry article about the absolute catastrophe that was Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Caves in Western Australia, which were sites of enormous cultural and historical significance not just for the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, but for the whole of humanity. To recap, these caves contained artefacts including the oldest grindstone and tool technology in Australia, and a belt made of human hair that established the genetic connection between the ancient inhabitants and the land’s modern PKKP custodians.
I’m not any less angry about this issue today. Rio has performed public mea culpas over this disaster, significant personnel stepped down, and it has made internal structural adjustments to shift the responsibility for mining near heritage sites to operational managers. I do believe that these moves were necessary and appropriate responses from Rio, and that they were made in good faith. But the fact remains that real contrition seemed sparse at the company even in the immediate aftermath. Furthermore, despite rehabilitation works being conducted at Juukan Gorge, the company has been slow to move towards financial compensation for the PKKP, although the company says that the details of that compensation are subject to a confidentiality agreement requested by the PKKP themselves. I certainly hope that Rio is not nickel-and-diming the PKKP behind closed doors, because a company with pockets as deep as Rio should be generous with such compensation for public relations reasons, if no others.
On top of this, Rio has also been slow to change its general attitude towards agreements with other indigenous Australian groups on whose land it mines. Kellie Parker, head of Rio’s Australian operations, says the company is looking to “modernise” its agreements with other traditional owners. One very clear way it could do this is to pay royalties to aboriginal groups whose land it started digging up before the Australian native title act of 1993, which was a landmark legal decision that recognised the traditional ownership of native groups over the Australian landmass. Any “modernised” agreement would have to take that into account, and Rio hasn’t said it’s out of the question. But the news of cultural transgressions just keeps rolling in; in June it was revealed that Rio had hushed up the 1990s destruction of 18,000-year-old artefacts showing how people lived during the last Ice Age.
But let’s bring this back to Spotlight’s focus for a moment: junior mining. Rio is the definition of a mining big boy, with an enormous corporate structure where it is easy for responsibility for these issues to get scattered or lost or just plain waved away. But the consequences of these failures flow well beyond the direct sphere of Rio or even of large mining companies and into all parts of the industry. All of you reading this know better than most how crucial the mining sector is for supplying the raw materials for our way of life; we’d literally still be in the Stone Age without mining. But when the big mining companies behave so disgracefully, it attracts all the wrong attention to the industry as a whole, and the average news consumer does not differentiate between large corporations and junior miners. They see evidence of mining as an industry running roughshod over priceless heritage sites and their opposition to the very concept of mining grows. Then, when a junior miner wants to set up shop near them, they fear that that company will have the same lack of consideration for environmental and social issues, and they oppose the project on that basis. It’s completely understandable – news reports don’t often get sent out about how mining has brought jobs to small communities or provided the raw materials for desirable technology. But these are, of course, things that it achieves.
It’s immensely frustrating from the perspective of junior miners when massive corporations sully the image of the industry in this way, because all the junior miners we work with here at Spotlight take ESG very seriously. And that’s our only defence against the tarnishing of our image; junior miners have to show concerned communities that they, perhaps unlike the big cats, will listen to concerns and act in the best interest of the local area. ESG is obviously vital from an ethical perspective, but also from a business one – junior miners increasingly have to set themselves apart from the catastrophic news reports and show that they genuinely can improve things for local communities, while treading lightly on the environment as well. It’s a tough gig, but we all know it’s worth it.
Around the Traps
If your company is serious about ESG and you want potential investors to know it, check out my article in the current edition of Prospector about Digbee ESG, a tool for companies to communicate their ESG credentials clearly and simply to the market.
Conquest Resources (TSXV:CQR) has its quarterly results out, and the release contains a nice summary of the great work they’ve been doing on their flagship Belfast-Teck Mag multi-element property in Canada.
Spotlight is looking for mining rebels to feature in its Changing Minesets series! If you know someone who is bringing a fresh perspective to the mining industry, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check out the diverse range of mining characters we’ve featured in the past here.
Hope it’s been a good week for all of you, that’s all from me!
- Jane Lockwood